An Interview With Imelda Staunton

Posted on: 18 September 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

The British actress talks about her career, plus we have Three And Out DVDs to give away.

Imelda Staunton, 52, is best known for her performances in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Vera Drake, for which she received an Oscar nomination. She talks to 50connect about her career, including her latest film role in Three And Out.

What's your take on the story of Three And Out?

Well, it's a quirky tale. I don't how much I can give away, to be honest! But Tommy, Colm Meaney's character, is terminally ill, he's had enough, and he's going to kill himself.

Mackenzie Crook's character, Paul, is a tube-train driver who's already knocked over two people - God, it sounds like a terribly depressing film, but of course it is a black comedy - and he's heard that if you run down three people, the tube company will pay you off, with ten years salary.

So they meet up, and Mackenzie says, “Look, I'll do the job for you, if you like, on Monday morning,” thinking he'll get lots of money out of it.

So Colm's got some loose ends to tie up, and he comes up to the Lake District for the weekend to see his ex-wife Rosemary, who I play. He doesn't come to say goodbye to her, he just comes up to try to make amends, if he can, which he can't really. Then he's going to go back on the Monday and - well, we'll have to see what happens, won't we?

What can you tell me about your character?

My character's only in it fleetingly, but I think she's quite important for Colm's character, to remind him what his life was like, what he's left behind, and what he messed up. They were married for a good while, but he was a gambler and a drinker, and he messed Rosemary around - he used to keep disappearing for weeks on end. But this last time has been the longest. It's been eight years: he walked out eight years ago, and now he's trying to walk back in, and she's not having any of it. She's had to make a new life, and she's had enough, really.

Had you worked with Colm before?

No, but I'm a great admirer of his work.

What can you tell me about the scenes you have together?

They're all quite difficult and emotional, but funny as well, of course. And what's nice is that they're all condensed into that weekend. So it's fairly full-on for him; she doesn't give him much leeway and she's not very nice to him. Because she's very angry about it all. But she realises that she's moved on, so she feels much more comfortable now, and she's in no way tempted to take him back at all.

What appealed to you about Three And Out?

Well, partly, as I said, because I think it's quirky, but also because the two male characters are interesting, in that they're not run-of-the-mill guy-movie material. They're men with weaknesses, and I like that. Rosemary is quite a strong presence in Tommy's life, and I think she's got even stringer since he left. She's a woman who says what she wants, and maybe Tommy couldn't hack that. So she's interesting from that point of view.

Do you get a lot of scripts? Are they easy to sort through?

It's easy to sort through them because you get quantity, but you certainly don't get quality. And then you see a bit of writing that's just off-centre and it jumps out. And if there's a good cast attached, you think, “That'll do!”

Has there been a certain range of roles opening up to you after Vera Drake? This seems quite a small role for you.

Well, to be honest, I'd worked before Vera Drake, and all that really happens now is that I just get more offers. But because you get more offered more roles, it doesn't mean they're better. Maybe I wouldn't have got my role in Harry Potter unless I'd had all the kudos I'd had with Vera Drake. They might have wanted me in it, but perhaps I wouldn't have been that high up on their list. So that's how things were affected by Vera Drake. But it's not like I think I should be playing certain parts, or leading roles, because that's not how the business works.

So Vera Drake hasn't stopped people offering you comedic parts?

No, that hasn't happened at all. I'm in Cranford, on television, which is very funny.

What can you tell me about that?

It's based on Elizabeth Gaskell's book, and Heidi Thomas has done the adaptation. It's a five-part costume drama with proper, good physical gags in it. Very funny, and very moving. So it was nice to be able to do something funny again. And with Harry Potter in the meantime, I'm still, thankfully, getting offered contrasting roles, which is what I've always done. From Vera Drake, the nicest woman in the world, to Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter, who certainly isn't. So it's still happening.

How was it to play Dolores Umbridge?

It was great to play the baddie, but in her mind she isn't a baddie at all. She's very sweet and nice but very driven, and she's absolutely convinced that what she's doing is right for everyone. But what she does isn't very nice (laughs), even though it's dressed up in all this outer pinkness and loveliness and kindness. She's a smily woman, which was wonderful to play, rather than playing someone who's all in black.

Were you a fan of the books?

Oh yes, I have daughter.

Is it important to stay with British productions?

Well, it's where my life and my home is. I had the perfect American job last year. I went out for two weeks and did a nice part in a film with Hilary Swank, called Freedom Writers, and it was the perfect gig: go out there for two weeks, do it, come home. I don't see myself, and I don't want to be, living anywhere else. There's enough work here, between here and Europe.

Is the stage still important to you?

Yes, I did a play earlier [in 2007 at the Almeida Theatre]. So I've got my cake and I'm really, really eating every bit of it.

How do you decide what to do?

I know it's boring, but it's always the script. After this, I'm doing a kids' drama, which is called Clay, written by David Almond, and that'll be a Sunday night, family entertainment. It's quite a strange piece. I'm playing a character called Crazy Mary, she's this little mad Irish woman, and I thought, “That's nice, I'll do that!” I never think, “Oh no, I shouldn't be doing that sort of thing - I should be off doing leading roles in big films!” Well, they're just not there, are they? [Laughs]

What's Clay about?

It's set in the mid-60s up in Tyneside. Its about a young lad that comes to stay with my character, but he's a bit weird – a bit religious and a bit odd - but he makes fantastic little clay figures. And then he meets up with another little gang of boys, who are all the same age - about 14 or 15 - and he makes a full-size clay figure that then comes to life. And it isn't very nice. In fact it's quite frightening. So it's quite exciting, really.

Are you an actor that needs a lot of preparation?

It's all on the page, really. Or it should be. But I think about it a lot beforehand, and I try to do it all in my head, in my own time. I try to do as much work as possible by myself.

How did you train?

I went to RADA, and then I did six years in rep, doing my apprenticeship, if you like. It was a great training ground.

Why was that?

For me, what it was about was actually doing it, not just standing at the back watching other people doing it. I was perhaps not doing it very well, but at least I was doing it, and I was given a lot of responsibility early on, and a lot of great roles. From St Joan, to Electra, to Piaf - all this great stuff. And it just made me hone the craft, because, although there's a certain amount you can do by watching other people, you really have to get up there and make mistakes in order to learn. So that was what was valuable.

It happens a wee bit [for drama students] now, but not a lot. I go and talk to drama students and it really isn't option for them to go and spend several years doing that.

What kinds of things do they talk to you about?

Some of them say, “I want to do theatre,” but when you're at drama school of course you want to do theatre, because that's all you've been doing!

But the business is now so locked into finding new stars - “Let's get the new fresh young thing, make them a hit and make a lot of money out of them”! But where do you go from there? It's hard for young actors now to have some sort of - I was going to say plan, but of course you can't have a plan, because whatever your plan is, it's not going to work! Maybe what I mean is that they need to keep their integrity.

I just say to them, “Look, I know it's hard when you're 20, 21, to think long-term in your career, because you're thinking, 'Ooh, I've got to be a huge success by the time I'm 25,' or, 'If I haven't done something amazing by the time I'm 30, that's it, I'm quitting...' But hang on a minute! There are many parts, and many ages, to go through to keep your work alive. So if you think, 'I'm going to do it all now,' what are you going to do next?”

So I say to them, “Yes, you can have that big success, but then maybe you could go back and do some theatre after that, or some nice, interesting telly.”

But, again, there are a lot more opportunities for drama students now. I left in 1976 and there was only rep! There was no film - you didn't go from drama school to be in a film - or the West End. that was terribly rare. And we only had one and a half channels on TV. Now, that doesn't mean there's a lot of absolute quality out there, but there's a lot more choice.

So how do you make value judgements?

You make value judgements by saying no to television companies who want to just make dross for no money - for anyone, I'm not just talking about actors' pay. I'm talking about the quality of the work that's being put on. That's what depresses a lot of actors now: there's lots of bits and bobs going on, which is why actors cling onto things like The Street, by Jimmy McGovern, and Cranford.

But I think the film industry is healthy here. It's television that's messing things up, I think It's clouding the waters really. People are saying that there are all these new production companies now, but they're fly-by-nights: “Let's just make a lot of money and bugger off.” But, without sounding pompous, that's not what art's about! They just want to do it quickly.

Were you always drawn to acting?


You talk a lot about scripts and writing. Ever thought about writing yourself?

No, I can't write at all! It doesn't necessarily follow that just because you can talk about those things, or have ideas, you can put it on paper. But that's what acting is about: telling these stories, so the script is the bottom line.

But within that, of course, there are times in your life when you think, “Well, I've got to do this job because there's nothing else happening,” and I've always been aware of that. There might have been times when I've thought, “I wish I was playing the other role...” But the truth is you're not playing that other role, are you? So do you want stay at home being bitter and twisted, or do you want to go out and get a job? I'd rather go out and do something.

Ironically, your breakthrough role was on Vera Drake. How was it working with Mike Leigh, who famously starts work without a script?
It was a huge challenge. I'd never worked with him before, and of course improvising with Mike Leigh is not like anything that one would imagine, and certainly not what I imagined. I thought, “Oh God, I can't do that, I can't just go into a room and suddenly do something.” But that couldn't be further from the truth - spending six months preparing a character is not the same as making it up as you go along.

How did you approach it?

I don't approach it! It's Mike's way of working, and that' what you go into. each day is different and there's no preparation involved. He tells you what's going to happen that day, and it's a very long, interesting and extraordinary process. It's not a case of just going in and making it up. No. It would take longer than any of us have got to discuss how it was made.

Was Vera Drake an easy character to leave behind?

Normally they are, but Vera Drake wasn't at all, but that was because it was such a different experience: you create someone, from the day she was born, and then you live her life, so it's very hard to get rid of that. You invent it with Mike, you inhabit it, and then he makes it so that you can be put into any situation and just be that character. You're so in the character that you can handle whatever's thrown at you, which is exactly what happened. I mean, take the moment in the film where the police arrive - I had no idea that that was going to happen. You just have to handle it. rather terrifyingly!

So you just kept going when that happened?

Mmm. For seven hours!

How did you feel when you saw the finished film?

Mike always lets the core actors watch the film before anyone else sees it. So I watched it and - I didn't know what to make of it, actually. And I had to see it again, which is why he does [let those actors see it first], because it's very weird and he knows how weird it is. Its not like watching any other film, it's like watching a person who you are, rather than the person you were pretending to be. And the next time you think, “Ah, OK, it's a film.” Because it's like someone you've been in a previous life. It's quite disturbing. There's no distance.

Did you learn improvisation at RADA?

We didn't do a lot of that, because we always worked with scripts. Sometimes they would just say, “Ooh, now try it as if you're very happy about this - now try it as if you're not happy about this.” But that's just something to exercise an actor's muscles and way of thinking, because you can look at a script and think there's only one way to play it. Or is there? And that's where you need good teachers to say, “Look, just twist it all around. Let's do the scene walking round very quickly - what does that throw up? That you're angry?” So you need those exercises to broaden your imagination.

Career-wise, what are your personal highs?

On stage, playing Piaf at Nottingham Theatre. Being in Guys And Dolls at the National. Uncle Vanya, with Jonathan Pryce and Michael Gambon. On television, The Singing Detective and Cranford. In the cinema, Vera Drake and Harry Potter.

Why Piaf?

Oh, it was a great part and I sort of did it well. I felt as confident as I could have felt.

Is Edith Piaf someone you were interested in?

No. This was 1980. It had been in the West End, where Jane Lapotaire had played it, so it was starting to come out to the reps. The director at the time suggested I have a crack at it.

Is that the only time you've played a real-life person?

I played the Queen Mother in a wonderful television series called Cambridge Spies. Ooh, I loved doing that! I just did two scenes, one with her in 1937 and another in 1947, and I really looked like her!

Do you get recognised much?

Not really. Occasionally, but it's not like I can't walk down the street without thinking, “Oh God, everyone's looking at me!” I think you get recognised an awful lot when you're on the telly.

Although a lot of people saw Vera Drake, I think more people didn't see it. And then there's the Harry Potter film, and we think everyone sees Harry Potter, but it's usually people with kids that see Harry Potter.

So I don't really get recognised all the time. I mean, occasionally. But I do think it must be very difficult if you're in EastEnders. (Laughs) Those people are recognised all the time!

Web Links

Three And Out DVDThree And Out costs £15.99 from all good DVD stores or can be purchased online at Amazon for £8.98.

Official film website:

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